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What’s the difference between a medical and surgical abortion?

If you are pregnant and don’t know what to do, talking to a doctor or counsellor about the choices available can help you decide what is right for you.

If you have decided to terminate the pregnancy, figuring out what abortion option is best for you may be challenging. However, having a discussion with your doctor can help determine the most suitable option for your circumstances.

It is important to confirm your pregnancy as soon as possible so that you have enough time to consider your options.

What is an abortion?

Abortion is a way of ending or terminating a pregnancy. In WA, there are two forms of abortion available: surgical and medical.

A surgical abortion is a straightforward procedure that removes pregnancy tissue from the uterus using gentle suction. A qualified doctor does it under anaesthesia at a specialised clinic or hospital.

The procedure for a surgical abortion only takes a few minutes, but you should allow for a few hours at the clinic. You will have an ultrasound to confirm how many weeks the pregnancy is, and you will need time to recover after the procedure. The procedure may take a little longer if you are over 12 weeks pregnant.

A medical abortion involves using medication to end a pregnancy, available in the first 9 weeks of pregnancy. Medical abortions are more widely available through most medical centres.

A medical abortion is also known as the MS-2 Step and it involves one packet of mifepristone and one packet of misoprostol. It can be used to terminate a pregnancy up to 63 days gestation (9 weeks). Mifepristone blocks the effect of progesterone, which is a hormone needed to continue a pregnancy. Misoprostol causes contractions of the uterus and relaxation of the cervix which helps to push out the contents of the uterus.

The mifepristone tablet is taken first, then 36-48 hrs later, four misoprostol tablets are taken between the cheek and gum. After this you can expect to experience vaginal bleeding and cramps usually within the first four hours. You may like to talk to your doctor about appropriate pain management for the initial days after taking the medication. Bleeding can last for 10-16 days and may be heavy.

For more information download our Medical Termination information sheet.

Surgical abortion is low risk and safe, particularly if done in early pregnancy (up to 12 weeks). However, there are a small number of possible, but rare, complications involved with the procedure – the clinic or hospital will discuss these with you in more detail. It’s common to experience some bleeding and period-like cramps for a short while afterwards. In some cases, further treatment (a procedure or dose of medication) may be required. There is also a small chance of damage to the uterus or cervix during a surgical abortion. While still very small, this risk is greater if the procedure is performed after 12 weeksof pregnancy.

In medical abortions you can expect to experience side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, abdominal pain/ discomfort and cramps, as well as fever and chills. These side effects are usually short term and should not last more than 24

You should see a doctor 1-2 weeks after an abortion to make sure there are no problems or ongoing pregnancy. Don’t rely on a home pregnancy test, as it can stay positive for some time after a pregnancy. This is also a good time to discuss contraception with your doctor, as you can get pregnant soon after having an abortion.

There is no right way to feel after an abortion, but it can help to talk to someone. For people experiencing an unintended or unwanted pregnancy, free counselling services are available at Sexual Health Quarters including face-to-face and telehealth services.